Why does a major key sound confident and happy, while a minor key can sound sinister or sad?
May 7, 2004 8:52 AM   Subscribe

How can a major key sound confident and happy, while a minor key can sound sinister or sad? Is it just centuries of musical brainwashing, or is there a real mathematical explanation?
posted by Pretty_Generic to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Come here often? ;-)
posted by stonerose at 8:58 AM on May 7, 2004

There was a discussion about this recently in rec.music.classical.guitar. Here's the beginning of the thread. Long on detail and short on actual answers, but this post gives some counterexamples to "minor = sad".
posted by kenko at 9:00 AM on May 7, 2004

Stonerose: that answer is more about what a key is in general, no?
posted by kenko at 9:14 AM on May 7, 2004

Response by poster: Those are good threads kenko. Except "House of the Rising Sun" most definately is sad.

stonerose: We need a search engine. But yeah, that thread was about the definition of a key, but what I'm interested in how a key can cause emotion. I mean, it's a strange concept isn't it? "God, I hope that frequency coming up is a factor of the preceding one... IT ISN'T! Sweet Jesus, my life is a meaningless void!..."
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:21 AM on May 7, 2004

Is it just centuries of musical brainwashing, or is there a real mathematical explanation?

A little of both, I think. Disclaimer: I am not a musicologist. Nor even a particularly good musician. As someone in the thread kenko linked alludes to, the frequencies of the notes in a major chord are in the ratio 4:5:6, while the notes in a minor chord have frequencies in the "more complex" ratio 10:12:15. But I suspect a lot of it is cultural too.

Semi-OT: Nearly all train whistles are minor chords. I never noticed this until I once heard a train whistle which was a major chord; it sounded so shockingly strange that it took me a while to figure out just why it sounded so strange.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:47 AM on May 7, 2004

It's mostly a cultural thing. Go to India, or Africa, or anywhere else that hasn't had it's musical roots defined by Pope Gregory and so on, and their idea of major and minor is radically different.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:58 AM on May 7, 2004

I once took lessons from a string bass player who had perfect pitch. He talked about playing "happy" notes (a bit sharp) and "sad" notes (a bit flat). IANAMusicologist, but I think the third and seventh of the major scale are a bit sharp of the corresponding frequencies of the harmonic series (at least in equal temperment) whereas in the minor scale they're a bit flat.
posted by timeistight at 10:24 AM on May 7, 2004

Here's an article on Equal Temperament that explains why the bassist in timeistight's story wants to bend pitches. As a wind player, I tend to do the same, though it isn't really fair to an accompanying pianist.
posted by Sangre Azul at 11:05 AM on May 7, 2004

It's also interesting to note that kenko's link to counterexamples contains largely fast paced minor pieces. Tempo can lot to do with the character of a piece. As does chord progression and the expectations of resolution - end a progression on a major fifth without resolving to one (be it major or minor) and the piece won't sound happy.. just annoyingly unfinished.

This seems to be a good (though often dry) resource on the psycology of music, though alas, there are only previews of the content.
posted by Sangre Azul at 11:38 AM on May 7, 2004

Nigel: "Yeah, it's part of a...trilogy really, a musical trilogy I'm doing... in... D minor, which I always find is really the saddest of all keys really. I don't know why, but it makes people weep instantly..."
posted by lbergstr at 12:43 PM on May 7, 2004

I have the same question, but it's more about resolution. Why does a one note seem to "end" a series of notes very nicely, and another seem to leave you hanging? Nature or nurture?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:21 PM on May 7, 2004

Read this book, if you're so inclined. Lotsa good stuff.
posted by Gyan at 2:18 PM on May 7, 2004

I've only made it through the first two chapters so far, but this book seems to deal with the roots of your question.
posted by adamkempa at 2:59 PM on May 7, 2004

Response by poster: All fascinating, thanks.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:02 PM on May 7, 2004

lbergstr... damn you.
posted by Witty at 7:14 PM on May 7, 2004

From my old, updated-twice blog that i won't bother to link to:

I have Winamp set to load a new skin every time a new song plays - and it used to suck: I didn’t have a high enough cool skin / OK skin ratio. But now that I’ve downloaded cooler skins and deleted some I didn’t like, the visual vibe is much better, and at times can have a sort of simbiosis with the music. Listening to a bunch of tunes I hadn’t played in awhile, and Slava ended and the first notes of Chet Baker’s version of Autumn Leaves were accompanied by a beautiful blue skin. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.

Despite all the changes in thought pattern over the centuries and across the continents, there have been a few constants. One of them is the fact of emotion being drawn through music and dance. Go wherever and whenever you want - New York in 1955, Vienna in 1780, Sydney in 589 B.C., and you’ll find, at the very least, singing and dancing of some kind. There are non-universal but independently-popping-up patterns with regard to music, as well: it’s often used, for example, for spiritual purposes, from the Cathedrals of medieval Europe to the ceremonies of North American natives to Hendrix’s Church of the Electric Lady and Coltraine’s transcendant “Love Supreme”; often, as well, a song will tell a story, be it Homer’s Odyssey, Beethoven’s Symphonie Pastoral or “Gangsta’s Paradise” (though that’s really more of a haiku).

It’s things like this that lead to the conclusion that music is somehow wired sidelong into our neural structure, like Asimov’s 3 Laws, that the patterns of chords and rhythms are created in ways that are parallel to the patterns in the way we think about ideas and experience emotions.

Of course, there’s a lot of elasticity in the way concepts are mapped into sounds - in fact, a tremendous amount, so much that it begs the question “how in the world did music then get started in the first place, with no environmental connection between, say, minor chords and sadness?” It’s important to remember that there is some underlying non-relative physicality - the shape of sound waves, for example, is not something purely in-the-mind but something definite: play two notes an octave apart and the sound wave that produces the higher note has a frequency exactly twice as great as the one that produces the lower note, which means that the even peaks of the high sound wave (every other peak, that is) line up with the peaks of the low sound wave, and the odd peaks (the remaining ones) line up with the troughs of the low sound wave - and to our ears, it’s easy to see why both notes are called C (or A, or E, etc., depending on which were played). A note with a frequency 1.5 times that of the first (or 3-divided-by-2 times) is half an octave (or a fifth) higher, and one with a frequency 1.75 times that of the first (or 5-divided-by-four times) is three-quarters of an octave (or a minor seventh) higher. There are mathematical relations between other pairs of notes as well, and generally the more complex or distant the relation, the more dissonant the sound.

One thing common to almost all music is the buildup and release of tension - this often comprises a good portion of, if you will, the “information content” of the music. But not all music has the information stored in the same place: in traditional western music, it’s stored in the type of chord (and the changes between varying degrees of consonance and dissonance), which is the type of mathematical relationship between a few notes; in latin music, it’s often the type of counterhythm placed against the main ongoing rhythm, which is the mathematical relationship between a few beats (which, come to think of it, can be thought of as notes scattered out in time - rhythms 1.5 times as fast are analogous to notes 1.5 times as high, and three beats per measure put against four is analogous to one sound wave put against another with a frequency a 1.25 times higher). Other types of music store information in other locations still, and if you grow up hearing the information stored in one way, it’s often difficult to extract information stored in a different way, and the music sounds like noise (in the case of bebop to 1950s traditionalists)—or sounds satanic (in the case of punk rock to christian fundamentalists). (In the case of misinterpretations like these, I suspect that the information content of the used-to music and the now-heard music may be different, but the interpretation is generally flawed as well. For example, speaking of differences in information content, Charlie Parker once said that “music is finding the beautiful notes,” which is immediately reflected in his playing, and also is probably not how, say, Stravinsky would have defined it.)

Don’t ask me how a minor chord came to indicate sadness; I suspect, however, that the chord’s mathematical structure has some relation to the mathematical structure of the neural construct used to access that emotion. People who due to their lives develop different neural constructs will therefore create music with different mathematical structure (and, perhaps, the brains of people who listen to music during childhood - and, to a lesser extent, adulthood - will be nudged into forming the neural neural constructs parallel to that music). In that sense, music is encrypted thought and emotion that our brains learn how to decrypt (perhaps using some of the same processes used to decrypt language, which is, of course, encrypted thought and emotion of a different kind).
posted by Tlogmer at 6:02 PM on May 8, 2004 [2 favorites]

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